Pundits Have Difficulty Discerning the Republican Party's Priorities

What more is there to say about about the topic of the week, Paul Ryan's "Path to Prosperity?" Its novelty, as it were, is a complete fiction. Anybody who has paid the slightest bit of attention to American politics over the last century knows that Republicans are opposed to funding a welfare state. Anybody paying attention to American politics over the last 30 years knows that slashing income taxes, capital gains taxes, estate taxes, or any tax falling on the richest Americans has been the top priority of the Republican Party. And anyone paying attention to American politics over the last 15 years knows that Republicans have only intensified in these views and have begun to punish apostates across the board.

Yet there seems to be utter confusion in punditry that this is what the Republican Party stands for. This week, Mark Kleiman wrote, as an aside, "The basic fact about American political life today is that one of the two major parties is dominated by dangerous extremists. The basic fact about American journalistic life today is that reporters aren’t reporting that fact." I happen to think that's a pretty accurate assessment, but calling Republicans "dangerous extremists" is a value judgment, and journalists don't tend to make value judgments when reporting. But you know who does make value judgments? Opinion writers! And the dominant value judgment of the week has been how "serious," "adult," and "courageous" Paul Ryan has been.

That pundits have tripped over themselves to praise Ryan's alleged bravery suggests one of two things. They either a) believe that slashing spending on the poor, the elderly and the needy to offset even more tax cuts for the wealthy is an inherently noble idea, or b) they do not understand what Ryan's proposal actually does. Take Andrew Sullivan, who is utterly incapable of understanding where the proposal taketh and giveth away. Perhaps someone should ask him if he wants to live in an America where concerns about budget deficits serve as a pretext to punish the poor and reward the rich. If he answered affirmatively, then you could say he was at least courageous enough to admit it publicly. If not, then how did he feel confident passing judgment on something he clearly does not understand?

I'm not singling Sullivan out, but it seems clear that many of the pundits praising Ryan are quite ignorant of the substance in his proposal and are relying on a shorthand that informs them that "Paul Ryan = conservative policy wonk." It would explain, for instance, why I've heard not a peep about the Republican Study Committee's similar proposal. It cuts even more than the Ryan proposal! But no accolades for Rep. Jim Jordan, the proposal's main author, because no one knows who he is. Yet on sheer reputation alone (deserved or not), "Paul Ryan, policy wonk," has captured the hearts and minds of elite opinion makers.

So yes, we could use better pundits. But return to Kleiman's observation. Reporters don't need to make value judgments in order to report the substance of what the Republican Party wants for America. An accurate, neutral account of Ryan's proposal would baldly state that Medicaid and Medicare as we know it would end, except for people who happen be 55 or older. It would say that this deficit-reduction plan does not raise taxes in order to address the problem. It would say that further tax cuts for the wealthy would be offered, but none for poor or middle-class Americans. It would say that defense spending is untouched. Armed with these basic facts, curious readers in our center-right nation could perhaps judge for themselves whether Republicans are "dangerous extremists" or not.